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Boulder Daily Camera Editor Responds to Controversial Car Crash Article

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This January 22 More Messages blog focuses upon "Trio Loved Speedy Cars," a Boulder Daily Camera piece penned by reporter Heath Urie that many readers saw as practically celebrating drunk driving at excessive speed. The quote that sparked the most ire came from Lorie Flaherty, the sister of Michael Flaherty, one of three twenty-somethings who perished on January 18 after the car in which they were riding smashed into a pole at over 100 miles per hour. "The thing that really makes me feel much better about this is they died doing what they loved to do -- they were drinking, they were going fast and they were together," she told Urie. "It gives me comfort, it does, to know those three things."

Daily Camera editor Kevin Kaufman responded to criticism of the report in a detailed and intriguing e-mail. Here's what he had to say in response to a series of questions posed by yours truly:

This accident indeed was a horrendous tragedy: three young lives lost in a shocking crash, children orphaned, family and friends left grieving.

No, we have not taken coverage of it lightly. The story you refer to was the second-day coverage after the accident. Our initial reporting covered the basics of the crash as we knew them, which given the time of the accident and intensity of destruction left police with little factual information to share about the events leading up to the crash or those killed. The families of the victims that first day were not yet willing to talk.

On Saturday, we continued to work to learn more about these three young people, who they were, where they came from, their passions, their work and family, what they were doing prior to the crash, where they'd been -- answers to why and how this tragedy could occur. Yes, we learned most of that from their families, who candidly shared thoughts about their loss, of these three young people's lives and their tragic deaths.

The story was clearly about more than what you suggest in your blog. IN the story we see and hear a great deal about who the victims were, their passions and dreams and lives and hopes. Those who they left behind wanted them remembered in the vibrancy of their lives.

Yes, the families of all three gave quotes more remarkable, and I'd suggest, more honest than many grieving families.

For me, like many readers and parents, it was a difficult story to read.

No, we were not glorifying reckless, high-speed driving.

Neither were we glorifying drinking and driving, although to date, we still do not accurately know the role alcohol played. Certainly it appears from family interviews the three had been drinking and that alcohol was a contributing factor ... However, we're still awaiting toxicology results from the coroner.

We told the story of three young people who loved fast cars, driving fast, drinking in some fashion and being together.

We told the tragic story of how those factors combined led to their deaths in a hideous crash and of the loss for the families and children they'd left behind.

I understand some people are critical of the Camera for telling the story this way. Yes, I suppose we could have withheld the truths the families shared, or as one commenter suggested "the reporter could have presented this story as a warning for others not to drive too fast."

Did our readers really need us to tell them that? The facts from both the first-day and this second-day story weren't obvious? The photos of the wreckage on our front page Saturday didn't bring the lessons home?

I appreciated this commenter's simple rebuttal:

"It's not the job of the newspaper to turn events into moral parables that satisfy the readers' conventional morality, or to rewrite what is said by people involved to suit that purpose. The reader is supposed to be able for form his or her own opinions."

We will continue to follow this story as more information becomes available. As part of that, as we learn more about the role of alcohol, we indeed will address the matter of drinking and driving as it is appropriate.

It was not a one-day, one-story news event. It continues to unfold as the many unanswered questions are answered and we learn what exactly happened that night. We will have many more stories. I ask that you not judge our coverage of the whole by any one piece.

Good advice. Still, Kaufman seems to see the issue as mainly whether or not the Camera should have published Lorie Flaherty's comments, and not whether they were framed in the most effective and balanced manner. The folks at the Rocky Mountain News apparently felt improvements could be made. The tab's version of the story, published on January 21, features a much less chipper headline that rightly emphasizes the key quote -- "Sister Says 3 Died Doing What They Loved: Drinking, Driving Fast." In addition, Rocky types rearranged the opening section with care and inserted a key line: "Her comments, first published in the Daily Camera over the weekend, set off a firestorm of comments on the newspaper's Web site."

This approach puts the themes in context even as it distances the paper from the sentiments being expressed -- something that didn't happen days earlier in the Daily Camera. -- Michael Roberts

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